Gal Gadot’s Casting as Cleopatra Sparks Whitewashing Controversy

Gal Gadot has been cast in the role of Cleopatra for an upcoming biopic about her life. The casting announcement has spurred a controversy about whitewashing in Hollywood.

Oct 13, 2020By Charlotte Davis, BA Art History
Bust of Cleopatra, 40-30 BC, in the Altes Museum, Staatliche Museum of Berlin, via Google Art and Culture (left); with Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963, via Times of Israel (center); and Portrait of Gal Gadot, via Glamour Magazine (right)


Gal Gadot has been cast as Cleopatra in an upcoming film, spurring controversy over whitewashing in the film industry and of ancient history. 


Gal Gadot is teaming up again with Patty Jenkins, the director of “Wonder Woman” for the biopic of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. She tweeted the announcement of her casting, saying “I love embarking on new journeys, I love the excitement of new projects, the thrill of bringing new stories to life. Cleopatra is a story I wanted to tell for a very long time. Can’t be more grateful about this A team!!” 


She also tweeted that she is looking forward to “tell her story for the first time through women’s eyes, both behind and in front of the camera.


The film is a retelling of the 1963 film about Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor. It will be written by Laeta Kalogridis and produced by Paramount Pictures.


The Whitewashing Controversy Of Gal Gadot As Queen Of Egypt

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963, via Times of Israel


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The recent announcement has ignited significant criticism, as people from a variety of social media outlets have noted the problematic nature of the casting choice. Some have expressed that a white woman should not have been cast as Cleopatra and that the role should be filled by a Black or Arab woman, accusing the film studio of “another attempt to whitewash a historical figure.” 


There has also been backlash over casting an Israeli actress in the role. Journalist Sameera Khan was among the outraged, tweeting “Which Hollywood dumbass thought it would be a good idea to cast an Israeli actress as Cleopatra (a very bland looking one) instead of a stunning Arab actress like Nadine Njeim? And shame on you, Gal Gadot. Your country steals Arab land & you’re stealing their movie roles..smh.”


Another twitter user stated: “Not only did they white-wash Cleopatra, they got an Israeli actress to portray her. Flush it down the toilet.” 


This follows several other whitewashing controversies in recent years, including but not limited to: Jake Gyllenhall in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010); Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange (2016); and Scarlet Johannson in Ghost in the Shell (2017). These are not the first instances of whitewashing on the big screen; Hollywood has a long history appropriating narratives of other cultures and casting white actors to play BIPOC characters. 


Questions About Cleopatra’s Ethnicity

Computer-animated image of what Cleopatra may have looked like, created by Dr. Ashton and her team, 2016, via Kemet Expert


Some have also come to Gal Gadot’s defense, pointing out that Cleopatra was of Macedonian Greek descent. 


Questions of Cleopatra’s appearance and ethnicity have been debated for years. She was the last Egyptian Pharaoh from the Ptolemaic dynasty descended from Ptolemy I Soter, who was both Macedonian Greek and a general of Alexander the Great. Professor Kathryn Bard of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Boston University has stated in the past: “Cleopatra VII was white – of Macedonian descent, as were all of the Ptolemy rulers, who lived in Egypt.”


However, more recently there has been dispute over an important element of Cleopatra’s ethnicity: her mother. Betsy M. Bryan, professor of Egyptian art and Archaeology at John Hopkins University, has said: “The mother of Cleopatra has been suggested to have been from the family of the priests of Memphis. If this were the case, then Cleopatra could have been at least 50% Egyptian in origin.” 


Dr. Sally-Ann Ashton, an Egyptologist, created a 3D computer-generated image of what she and her team imagined Cleopatra’s face would look like. It was not a white woman, but a woman with cornrows and brown skin. Dr. Ashton commented, “Cleopatra (VII’s) father was referred to as nothos (illegitimate) and the identity of her mother has been questioned by historians…both women may have been Egyptian and so African…if the maternal side of her family were indigenous women, they were African; and this should be reflected in any contemporary representations of Cleopatra.” 


Dr. Ashton also weighed in on Gal Gadot being cast as Cleopatra: “film makers should have considered an actor of mixed ancestry to play the role of Cleopatra and that this would have been a valid choice.”


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By Charlotte DavisBA Art HistoryCharlotte is a contributing writer from Portland, Oregon now based in London, England. I’m an art historian with extensive knowledge in art history, classics, ancient art and archaeology.